By Ricardo Cano, CalMatters
Reeling from a fire-ravaged autumn in which “disaster days” have already cost some 800,000 students days and even weeks of instruction, California educators are asking the state
to address one of the most sweeping consequences of climate-fueled wildfire: the now-annual mass emergency closures of schools.
In Sonoma County, where some schools have lost nearly 40 instructional days in two years to wildfires, floods and power shutoffs, one superintendent is leading a lobbying campaign for “summer disaster relief” school funding to underwrite summer school in fire country. In Butte County, another has told lawmakers that pre-emptive blackouts forced him to choose between educating kids in the dark or risking $107,000 per day in attendance-based state money.
On the rural North Coast, a state senator and former school board member says he’s planning to push for school-based microgrids in 2020 so classrooms have backup the next time utilities cut the power to avoid sparking another inferno.
Meanwhile, in letters, meetings and public testimony, alarmed school officials — and, in some cases, students — have called for stronger state action as the state’s public school system struggles to educate some 6 million students in the face of more and more frequent climate emergencies.
California law requires schools to provide at least 180 days of annual instruction. The Legislature can penalize them financially by withholding attendance-based aid if they don’t meet that threshold, though in natural disasters, the state usually waives those penalties.
But beyond that, schools have broad autonomy under the state constitution, leaving the California Department of Education with little more than the power to advise on such issues as school cancellations. Whether to build emergency days into the school calendar or sacrifice instruction for smoky air or a precautionary power outage is up to each individual district. The result, educators say, has been a patchwork of confusion in a crisis that’s only widening.
A CDE spokesman said the department is soliciting district interest in a disaster response task force and gathering information for a possible policy proposal next year on lost instructional time. Otherwise, the department and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond have mostly urged schools in high-risk areas to adjust their calendars for disasters and to stump for the school bond initiative on the March ballot so money will be available for generators and fireproofing.
The pleas for more state involvement — expected to be a focus when the Legislature reconvenes in the New Year — are a departure in a state where local control has been the K-12 mantra, not only for districts but also for the state’s powerful teachers unions. The difference, school officials say, is the onset of climate-driven disasters.
“The occasion by which I would close a school would be about an every-other-year thing based on weather and road conditions. Now, it is common practice to close school at least two to three times a year for most districts,” said Steve Herrington, superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education whose career as a school administrator has spanned four decades.
“This is a phenomenon I have not seen in my professional career until the last five years.”
Mounting impact on California students
Though wildfire is a natural phenomenon in California, climate change and wildland development have amplified it to historic proportions. As CalMatters found in a recent analysis of nearly two decades of school closure data, the threat to communities — and core institutions, such as schools — has grown dramatically.
Since late 2015, wildfires have temporarily shut down thousands of schools statewide, disrupting public education more often, more widely and for longer periods than in years past. Closures lasting days or weeks have ceased to be a rarity.
Last school year, state records showed, wildfires and related outages and smoke pollution sent home more than 1.1 million of the state’s 6 million or so public school students, a record. Four months into this school year, fires and preventative blackouts already have forced closures in at least 34 counties, according to a separate database CalMatters built to track this year’s fire impact.
That sweep — surpassing the 29 counties in which schools closed for fire and related issues last year — is also a new record, driven in part by the liability concerns of utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric, which are increasingly powering down during red flag conditions. In Sonoma County, for example, even before classes dismissed for Thanksgiving, fire-related blackouts and evacuations had already canceled 15 days of instruction in the community of Geyserville.
Missed school correlates strongly with lower academic performance, according to a host of academic research. And school days lost to disaster differ from the benign absences of, say, a snow day in the Sierra or on the East Coast.
“The experience of anxiety and trauma that are associated with the fire days is very different,” said John Rogers, professor of education at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Rogers noted that disruptions at the start of a school year are particularly costly, and that days off for disaster come as a result of upheaval, fear, flight and loss.
Natural disasters can generate long-term trauma among children, impacting both mental health and academic progress. Researchers who tracked students displaced by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina found that test scores dropped dramatically in the years after those disasters; after Katrina, college enrollment rates among displaced suburban students fell by 3.5 percentage points.
In the Lake County community of Middletown, where students have now lost a cumulative 34 days of instruction over the past four years due to fires and power shutoffs, the disasters have had a significant academic impact. After the 2015 Valley Fire, the proportion of graduating seniors in the Middletown Unified district deemed by the state to be “college and career ready” fell from about 50% to 27.5%.
Poverty exacerbates that. Though some of the wealthiest parts of the state, from Malibu to Santa Barbara, lie in the wildland-urban interface where the most damaging wildfires happen, those outlying areas where development meets nature are also among the state’s last bastions of affordable housing and cheap land.
When California’s largest utility, PG&E, blacked out its Northern California service area in October to avoid sparking a wildfire, for instance, a CalMatters analysis of census tracts impacted found that one in ten of the residents — and one in eight children — in the affected area were living below the federal poverty line.
Lost school time falls particularly hard on low-income students, depriving them not only of instruction but also, in many cases, of critical health services and nutrition. Of the nearly 132,000 students who, by CalMatters’ estimate, have lost a week or more of school this year to outages and wildfires, more than half — 52.6% — rely on free or reduced-price school meals.
“It’s not only the [school] lunch services, but you have to think about the additional types of services that flow through schools, be it mental health services, be it school nurses,” said Kevin Gee, an associate professor at UC Davis who researches the health and educational outcomes of students in need.
“Increasingly, schools are responsible for ensuring the overall well-being of students, so those lost instructional days mean that kids aren’t necessarily being engaged in those services.”
Lose-lose situation for schools
In Amador County Unified School District, for instance, a district of about 4,000 students southeast of Sacramento, PG&E power shutoffs closed 12 schools for six days during wildfire conditions at the start of the school year. Superintendent Amy Slavensky said parents complained about the threat to their kids’ academics, but she was most worried about the 50% or so of her student body living in poverty.
“When their power is shut off, yeah, they’re certainly losing learning time and class time, but many of our students are also in situations where they don’t have electricity, they’re cold, they’re not able to bathe properly,” Slavensky said. “They may not be getting three meals a day, or even one or two meals a day.”
In Yuba County’s sprawling Marysville Joint Unified School District, meanwhile, some schools lost as many as 10 school days because of related power shutoffs. Now, schools superintendent Gary Cena is leaning on guidance from the state Department of Education to secure funding for generators and says he’ll build “shutdown days” into the academic calendar from now on. He hopes the state will push back standardized testing dates this spring in acknowledgment of the academic strain of power shutoffs.
“Any wiggle room in the schedule now is more geared toward core instruction,” Cena said.
Even educators in schools that remained open during blackouts – whether by purchasing generators, bottled water and portable toilets, or relying on iPhone flashlights in pitch-black classrooms to power through lessons – described the situation as lose-lose.
Corey Willenberg, superintendent of the Oroville Union High School District in Butte County, said he steered $20,000 in funding “that is now no longer available to put toward students and teachers” toward generators, fuel and lanterns to keep schools running.
At a Nov. 18 marathon legislative hearing in Sacramento, Willenberg told lawmakers that, given the choice between teaching without power and possibly losing attendance-based state funding, he kept Oroville schools open because the students’ need for food and stability outweighed the discomfort and risk of conducting classes without electricity.
Some classrooms had to be vacated because they hit triple-digits without air conditioning, he added, and kids overall didn’t receive quality instruction.
“Without electricity, staff was unable to perform daily duties,” Willenberg told lawmakers. “Teachers were unable to properly deliver lessons, and students were not able to perform tasks.”
‘Fatigue has set in’
Since the 2015-16 school year, fire-related school closures, which now include preventative power shutoffs, have affected more than 3,300 public schools across the state, according to CalMatters’ analysis. In about half, the loss of instructional time has amounted only to one or two days.
But in fire-prone regions, thousands of students in hundreds of schools have had to evacuate multiple times or have been shut out of school because of toxic air quality. Eighty-two schools in six counties have accumulated four weeks of lost school time since 2015. A CalMatters survey of state data and county education officials indicates that some 8,000 California kids have lost homes in the fires or otherwise been displaced.
For Sabine Wolpert, a seventh-grader at Salmon Creek Charter School in the Sonoma County community of Occidental, the response has been to organize. As part of the grassroots Schools for Climate Action, Wolpert and her classmates have written scores of letters to education groups and local school boards calling for them to publicly acknowledge the adverse effects that climate-driven disasters have on students and schools.
The issue is personal: Since 2017, students at Salmon Creek have lost 16 days of instruction — essentially a week per year — to fires and floods, according to state records and CalMatters data. The Friday after the Kincade Fire erupted, smoke blanketed the North Coast, creating air quality too hazardous for kids to be outside. Classrooms became hot and stuffy from lack of ventilation. Eventually, 200,000 people were ordered to evacuate, including Wolpert and her classmates.
Wolpert said she felt scared and stressed during the evacuation. When she returned to Salmon Creek after losing five instructional days, she said class felt like “condensed work” with teachers rushing to get through curriculum.
“It was not great,” she said. “Just missing that much work time is not ideal.”
Herrington, the Sonoma County superintendent, is urging the state to fund summer school as an option for districts hit hardest by wildfire. CalMatters found more than 360 schools that would be eligible for Herrington’s “summer disaster relief” proposal, which would be open to schools that have lost five or more days of instruction in a school year.
Other educators want the state to fund generators, though that solution, too, has its limits. In the remote Southern Trinity Joint Unified School District, where three of four campuses lost five days of instruction to fire-related outages this year, some buildings are more than 50 years old and likely lack the capacity to support a generator, said superintendent and principal Peggy Canale.
“The wiring in our main building is old, and we’ve probably already overmaxed it with new computer technology that is required” for instruction, Canale said.
What’s becoming clear, lawmakers say, is that the need for action is as complicated as it is urgent. “Fatigue has set in” for students and educators, said Sen. Mike McGuire, the Sonoma County Democrat who hopes school-based microgrids will at least mitigate future outages.
McGuire, a former school board member who’s married to an elementary school principal, said recent years have put an “incredible strain on kids and families” in his legislative district. They experienced the devastating Valley Fire in 2015 and Tubbs Fire in 2017, followed by flooding in the Russian River – and then, this fall, the Kincade Fire coupled with a wave of power shutoffs.
Parents working hourly, low-paying jobs, he said, didn’t earn any income during the shutoffs, which, for some, also spoiled hundreds of dollars worth of groceries. Families have fallen behind on rent and bills.
“I can’t stress this enough – you can see the stress in these kids’ eyes,” McGuire said. “You can see the stress in their parents’ eyes. They’re struggling with money.
“And there is no alternative. Which is why we need to expedite assistance to bring back some normalcy in their lives. And I can’t believe I’m talking to you like this, when we’re almost in the year 2020,” he said.
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.